Kathmandu Questions

4 April 2008, to Jenafir

Children in Kathmandu

I’m in Kathmandu and thinking of you. I visited the Swayambhunath temple this afternoon, up on its hill overlooking the valley. Beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and it opened me up in the way only real beauty can, cut through all the jaded traveler in me. I haven’t been home since we worked together a year ago – you know that. It will be time for me to return to San Francisco soon. But what I wanted to talk to you about today is the two little boys that accompanied me to the temple and back.

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Supercomputer Social Experiment

I have a ridiculous idea for a game that will momentarily yield one of the most powerful computers ever.

I didn’t have the idea first, exactly. There’s a piece of software called FlashMob that automatically links whatever computers are nearby into a temporary grid computer. So, you could, for example, invite everyone over for pizza and run your cryptography hack until after the movie finished.


Of course, the software takes its name from flash mob the social experiment. Game. Movement, whatever. So what about putting the game back in the software?

It would require one concept and after that, one email. The email would be from a reasonably socially connected person in any large and wired city to all of their friends and all the appropriate lists. The email would direct everyone to install FlashMob on their laptops, set their wireless to join a particular network, and request them to show up at a particular time and place

The concept is the hard part. This is the thing that would make people come, because it is the thing that would make it art. The central question is: what could you compute in an hour on five hundred laptops that was so cool or beautiful that it would inspire people to make it real?

Identity Card

Discriminatory rooming ad in Dubai

There are four official languages in Singapore: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. This reflects the four major peoples who came to populate the city-state: Chinese, Malay, Indian, and colonial British. Every citizen of Singapore is issued a piece of government ID (the National Registration Identity Card) which has one of these races printed on it.

Does this discourage people from having mixed-race children?

Singapore twists the Asian brain.  Just about every other Asian country is uni-cultural, at least according to the mainstream narrative. The Japanese people live in Japan and speak Japanese. The Vietnamese live in Vietnam and speak Vietanamese. The Thai people live in Thailand and speak Thai. Etc. This makes identity really easy — except if you live in Singapore, and there’s no Singaporean race, no Singaporean language, no ancient and venerable Singaporean hertitage. Blood and place and language and culture used to be inextricable, but we can no longer use any of these things to define one another. Fortunately, it says what you are right there on the card. I don’t think this is a particularly good idea.

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World Toilet Day

One of my friends has helpfully pointed out that today is World Toilet Day. According to the World Toilet Organization, fully 40% of the world’s people do not have access to proper sanitation facilities.

World Toilet Day \'08

We do deserve better; I for one don’t particularly enjoy squatting in the bushes. The World Toilet Organization agrees, and sponsors World Toilet Summits and World Toilet Expos, “wherein all toilet and sanitation organizations can learn from one another and leverage on media and global support that in turn can influence governments to promote sound sanitation and public health policies.” They also started the first World Toilet College, providing training in toilet design, maintenance, school sanitation, disaster sanitation, and implementation of sustainable sanitation systems.

Okay, you can snicker now. I know I am.

This would be even funnier if it wasn’t actually serious — human waste is a major disease carrier if not handled correctly, and an awful lot of people are still just pooping on the ground or in the river. But let’s not dwell on negatives; in the carefree spirit of World Toilet Day, I thought I’d briefly discuss, and show some pictures, of the types of toilets I’ve encountered in various parts of the world. Travel yields many surprises, and, astonishingly, there were places where I had to learn to wipe my ass all over again. (“Don’t you know how to use the three seashells?” indeed.)

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Why is Obama Black?

Obama is the son of an African father and a European mother. Why is he black (with a white mother) instead of white (with a black father)?

What makes Obama black? Is it nothing more than the color of his skin? How light do you have to be before you’re white? (If anyone brings up “just one drop” I’m going to slap them for exhuming idiocy.) Does the fact that he married an African-American woman make him blacker? If he had married a white girl would he have been whiter? Or maybe it’s the work he did in the black communities of Chicago, but what about the service he’s given to the white people of Illonois as their Senator? Perhaps it’s the fact that he shoots hoops — with white guys.

According to Rolling Stone, he listens to Jay-Z, but also Bruce Springstein.

Tell me what “black” means, because I honestly don’t know.

The Giggling Dawn of The Real World

It must have been six in the morning and I was in the kitchen with Naomi, and we were trying to figure out if the party meant anything. This always happens to me. Probably it’s because I’ve ended up at some very good parties. This one involved poets and a hundred black berets, and fresh-baked cupcakes for breakfast. Naomi looked fabulous and she really was Danger Girl that night, and we were trying to understand whether that amazing energy, that vortex of possibility that surrounds any truly good party, whether that could save the world.

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A Dozen Things You Notice About The Developing World

It’s very hard to understand the world in the abstract, without walking its cracked pavement or trying to have a conversation with someone impossibly different from you. Wikipedia defines a “developing country” as a nation “that has not reached Western-style standards of democratic government, free market economy, industrialization, social programs, and human rights guarantees for their citizens.” But this glossy language never prepared me for the things I saw almost immediately that first time I landed somewhere poor. This list is a primer for those who have not yet had the mind-blowing experience of stepping outside the castle walls.

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Science Writing is Hard

Science is sometimes really tricky, which makes writing about it even trickier. No real experiment exists apart from a huge background of assumptions, abstractions, caveats and complexities;  the writer’s job is to find a strong narrative that is understandable with little or no prior knowledge, scans well, and catches the reader’s attention.

Recent research on physiological differences between liberal and conservative voters seems like a dream come true if you’re in need of a catchy press release, like this one from the National Science Foundation. I read the actual paper, and it says that people who answer more conservatively on a questionnaire about their politics tend also to have more pronounced “fight-or-flight” reactions to disturbing or surprising stimuli, as measured by skin conductance and startle response.

The press release tells a different story, and I believe that the NSF science writer told the wrong story. I attribute this partially to the politics of publicity, but mostly to the fact that science is actually very subtle, and hard to summarize.

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